It was just another visit to Canberra but this time my mother was accompanying me to see her grand-daughter who lives in Canberra. All I wanted was a simple twin share room but one of the hotels I often use was booked out and the other I also sometimes stay at did not have twin share. They offered to put up a foldaway bed if I paid an additional sum of money – but I didn’t want to pay extra for the privilege of sleeping in a potentially uncomfortable bed so I found a hotel I had never tried before.
I secured a great rate but given that this was a branded hotel I was expecting a bland experience. The mention of ‘old world charm’ did not enthuse me. The last time I stayed in ‘old world charm’ I was in a room with a window covered in ‘old world’ grime, antiquated plumbing and a rattly old air conditioner. But I didn’t pay much for the room so was not going to grumble if it was like this. You get what you pay for.
It is good to have low expectations because then you have the pleasure of expectations being exceeded. As I walked into our room at the Mercure Hotel in Canberra my cynicism vanished. We had two queen sized beds with one bed right next to a window. The daylight flooded onto the bed unimpeded by those daytime curtains used by so many hotels to protect privacy. I went to the window and laughed. The room was great value but the view reflected the price. It was so bad it was funny. I had no concerns about my privacy – I don’t think anyone would gaze on that view! But I could actually open the window and breathe in the fresh Canberra air. Our room was far superior to all those hermetically sealed hotel rooms with artificial air, bland drapes and soulless prints hung on beige walls. Not only that, but the bathroom was properly renovated, the beds comfortable and the room was spacious.
Every time I enter a hotel room I methodically open every drawer and cupboard. This routine revealed another surprise – a history of the hotel.
That night I read Olims Hotel Canberra: Through the Ages by Sarah Rood with Belinda Ensor. It is a commissioned history that has been presented for the casual reader. There are plenty of photos, the chapters are short and the length makes it easy to read in one evening. It was nice to see that the authors and client included a few endnotes, credits for images used and a bibliography. That shows respect for the reader and a commitment to getting the history right.
The hotel was built for the first opening of parliament in 1927 at what is now known as the old Parliament House. The designers of Canberra, Walter and Marion Griffin stayed in room 37. Unfortunately Marion Mahony Griffin is described in the book as a “a talented draughtswoman” rather than an architect. As I noted in a review of an exhibition about the designing of Canberra Marion Mahony Griffin was the second woman to become a qualified architect in the United States and worked as an architect for Frank Lloyd Wright before she and Walter Burley Griffin designed Canberra.
Other dignitaries who stayed at the hotel for the opening of Federal Parliament included Sir Robert Garran, the solicitor-general at the time. While our room was in the oldest wing of the hotel, the book didn’t mention anyone interesting who stayed in our room. Aside from leaving a history of the hotel in each room, the hotel could also place a summary of some of the interesting guests who had stayed in that room or one or two anecdotes of things that had occurred in the room.
The hotel has had some interesting guests. By the 1930s some public servants were living at the hotel. Irene Crespin, the Commonwealth Palaeontologist with the Geological branch of the Department of Home and Territories lived at the hotel for fifteen years from 1936. What a fascinating woman! According to her Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, she became interested in geology at Mansfield Agricultural High School and went on to study geology at University of Melbourne. She was involved in the search for oil while working for the Commonwealth Government, regularly attended international conferences and received a D.Sc. from the University of Melbourne.
By this stage I was absorbed in the book. The hotel has had many functions over the years. Between 1942 and 1950 I learned that the hotel became a boarding house for women. “[T]hree thousand public servants were brought into Canberra during the war, and many of these were women…” I didn’t know that. The women got around on bicycles and were expected to go to nearby Mount Ainslie to collect firewood for the hotel.
But Canberra residents wanted their local pub back. Before the War the hotel had been the local watering hole and social focus for the small town of Canberra. In the late 1940s the bars opened again. The book told of regulars such as the gardener called ‘Socks’, “because he was never seen wearing any” and ‘Big Ollie’ the barmaid who would “step in and with astonishing ease, physically remove the cause of disturbance from the pub.”
I finished reading quite late knowing that I would pay for it, but I wanted to finish the book. My mother springs out of bed every morning while her daughter drags herself up and takes about an hour to really wake up. My mother was delighted to find out that breakfast started at 6:30 am and I had promised to join her. The next morning the dutiful daughter woke up at six am and together we had the pleasure of being the first hotel guests for breakfast at around 6:45am. We had the dining room to ourselves and left as the next guests arrived. Armed with cameras we wandered around what we discovered is a delightfully quirky hotel.
As with many of the foundational buildings of Canberra, the outward appearance of the hotel is unremarkable. This befitted a capital city that grew out of a paddock and was designed to fit in with the natural environment. Reading the history of the hotel it is apparent that the authorities in charge of building Canberra prioritised function over form, sticking to a tight budget rather than giving licence to architectural imagination. But this hotel has what is missing from the office blocks and hotels developed since the 1970s, it has personality.
After reading the history I remained unsure about who designed the hotel. The original plans displayed on the stairways to the upper floor clarified that. ‘Burcham Clamp and Finch Architects’ of Pitt St in Sydney were responsible for the design. The book focussed on the builders, Wesley George and Bruce Elphinstone. “The design was intricate and the facade ornate”, the book said. With my twenty-first century eyes I struggled to see this. To me it looks like an enormous house but with a small grand portico for cars to drive up. Perhaps the plans for the exterior were whittled down while the hotel was being built.
“The features of the interior … were completed with particular care, the builders keenly aware that a well-finished job in a fledgling city could potentially secure future work.” I gained the impression that the builders were young, keen and perhaps struggling. Within the restrictions of the commission the authors could not digress, but I would have been interested to read more about the general state of the business run by George and Elphinstone at the time and any personal anxieties this was causing them.
However, the book did convey the struggles George and Elphinstone had in constructing the hotel. “Canberra experienced a major brick crisis in the 1920s.” Three and a half thousand workers were involved in the building of Canberra readying the capital for the opening of parliament in 1927. They used up nine million bricks produced locally so six and a half million bricks had to be transported from Sydney and Bowral.
This book shed new light for me on the history of Canberra. A city dominated by two sectors, government and higher education, it gives the impression of being almost entirely middle class. Yet Sarah Rood and Belinda Ensor mention “a ramshackle village of makeshift huts, which had sprung up on the slopes of Mt Ainslie during the depression”. In this most planned and governed cities, I wonder how the authorities dealt with this untidiness and ignored the suffering?
I have written before about the design and early history of Canberra. This book demonstrates the benefits of telling history through a different lens. Olims Hotel Canberra: Through the Ages is more than a history of a hotel. It sheds new light on the history of Canberra. There are many themes it touches on which could be explored further by historians. After reading and exploring the hotel I reckon that its history and design would make it a good setting for a novel.
Sarah Rood with Belinda Ensor of Way Back When Consulting Historians have written an interesting book that engages the intended audience – hotel guests. It can be read cover to cover in a couple of hours, or the reader can flick through the pictures and get something out of reading a few paragraphs here and there. The client who funded this work should also be congratulated. Dr Jerry Schwartz, the owner of the hotel at the time, has recognised the value to his business of commissioning this history. It is another way to get the word out about his business that is much better than unwanted advertising.
Olims Hotel Canberra: Through the Ages is available to purchase from the Mercure Hotel, Canberra; or you can stay the night at the hotel and read it on a comfortable bed in a quiet room. If you want to stay in the old wing of the hotel, book a standard room, but check first if you have mobility issues as there are many stairs.